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December 2005
The Kalamazoo Promise... How about one for Charlotte?
By John Paul Galles

     Have you heard about “The Kalamazoo Promise”? It is an amazing commitment by an anonymous donor base to provide students graduating from the Kalamazoo Public Schools (KPS) the opportunity to attend post-secondary education with up to 100 percent of their tuition and fees paid. All students who graduate from KPS, who reside within the school district and have been students within the KPS schools for four or more years, are eligible for the scholarship for the four years following their graduating date (unless interrupted for military service), and remain eligible as long as they successfully complete at least 12 hours each semester. The scholarships are available for attendance at any public Michigan state university or community college.

     So why is this being offered to Kalamazoo students? According to the program donors, for the following reasons:

  First, education is an important key to financial well being.

  Second, it allows KPS to differentiate itself from other public and private school systems.

  Third, it provides a real meaningful and tangible opportunity for all students.

  And fourth, The Kalamazoo Promise will create opportunities for individuals who attend KPS and their current and future families. It follows – and studies have shown – that there is a strong correlation between overall academic achievement and a community’s economic vitality and quality of life.

     The program is designed to provide maximum benefit to long-term attendees, to encourage families to make early decisions to enroll their students in Kalamazoo Public Schools and to maintain that enrollment through graduation. The group of anonymous donors sees this as a means of promoting economic development.

     Randy Eberts, executive director of the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, says a scholarship program on this scale “has to be unprecedented,” adding that the program has “far-reaching implications” for the entire region. “This is going directly into the pockets of residents and it involves an activity that will benefit the entire community,” he continues, “This isn’t trickle down. It’s trickle up.”

     “This will result in national attention that’s going to put Kalamazoo in a very positive light,” Eberts says. “People are going to say that this is a community that really values education and that’s serious about having a quality work force. … This is such a boon for the region.”

     The mayor, Robert Jones, echoes these sentiments: “This represents a tremendous opportunity for every kid to go to college without any excuses. For the city, well, it sets the city apart. We really have something now that gives us a competitive advantage in attracting business to this area.”

     WOW! What an amazing incentive in support of students and residents of that community and a unique vehicle to further economic development!!

     Kalamazoo Public Schools serves over 10,500 students in 2 high schools, 3 middle schools, 16 elementary schools, and 8 magnet schools. Approximately 850 teachers and 1,350 other employees work to meet the needs of their students. According to Superintendent Janice Brown, the district graduates about 500 students a year and about 75 percent to 80 percent go on to college. She estimates the cost of the program will be about $3 million next year, and about $12 million a year by the time four graduating classes are in college. “But as we double our enrollment,” she says to laughter, “that cost would rise to $24 million a year. But we still have a commitment from our donor group. As one of them said to me, ‘Isn’t that the purpose?’”

     Ever since court-ordered busing in Kalamazoo, KPS has witnessed an enrollment slide over the past 30 years. Families have moved out of the Kalamazoo school district so that their children could attend suburban and rural districts, attend neighborhood schools and mingle with other students in their socio-economic categories. While that was happening, KPS minority student populations grew substantially and became a majority of the student base.

     With families and students fleeing Charlotte and Mecklenburg County for suburban school districts, and wealthier families enrolling students in private schools, the student population in Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) is no longer reflective of the community as a whole. At the same time, CMS is expecting nearly 5,500 new students each year over the next ten years.

     CMS currently estimates that 12 to 15 percent of students attend private schools here, versus the statewide 8 to 9 percent, and the national figure of 9 to 10 percent. Chamber statistics for the 2004-2005 year approximate that 14 out of 100 students attend private schools. There has been similar discontent here about the resulting quality of a school system where so many who are financially able have chosen to move outside the system or opt out for private instruction.

     Currently, CMS serves over 120,000 students in 17 high schools, 32 middle schools, 91 elementary schools and 11 special schools. Approximately 7,700 teachers and about 8,000 other employees work to meet the needs of students in the CMS district. CMS graduates about 6,000 students per year. If ratios are any indication, a similar program in Charlotte would need about $36 million per year or close to $150 million during any four-year program years.*

     The impact of such an incentive would be substantial. Home prices would rise and the tax base would expand as students move back into the school district. Such investment would likely result in a better-educated work force and provide a powerful incentive for businesses to locate in this area. Parent, student and teacher expectations and performance would improve, creating an entirely different educational environment.

     Finding the resources to provide a “Charlotte Promise” would be an ambitious goal. Nevertheless, funding such a promise for CMS students might be just the catalyst for changing the direction and the performance of CMS schools so that parents, students and teachers value the public education that is provided by our tax dollars and more fully take advantage of it, making them more likely to ultimately become contributors to our community, our economy, and our work force.

     “Charlotte Promise” could be the paradigm shift so badly needed in our public school system – the key to a new future for CMS students and for the school system itself. Schools which have been relegated to serving the most common denominator of the student population would instead be incentivized to reshape their programs and curriculum to build on the strengths and maximize the potential of each and every student. And, from an economic development point of view, it would provide immediate incentives for business relocation within Mecklenburg County and for development of our core resources – our future work force – in the region.


       *According to an article in the Kalamazoo Gazette, this year’s freshman tuition and mandatory fees totaled $6,478 at Western Michigan University, $7,652 at Michigan State University and $9,218 at the University of Michigan. Comparable tuition and fees at some of North Carolina’s state institutions are approximately as follows: $1,264 at Central Piedmont Community College, $3,553 at UNC-Charlotte, $4,338 at North Carolina State University, and $4,606 at UNC-Chapel Hill.


John Paul Galles is the publisher of Greater Charlotte Biz.
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